Indonesian cuisine (the good, the bad and the ugly)

It was quite easy to familiarize ourselves with the Indonesian language, at least as far as the culinary art is concerned. Several simple words, such as nasi (rice), mie (noodles), goreng (fried), rebus (cooked), bakar (grilled), sambal (paste, sauce), telur (egg), ikan (fish), udang (prawn), ayam (chicken), sayur (vegetables), etc. were enough to achieve an introductory level of knowledge. Combine one with another and you get the names of popular dishes: ayam goreng, udang rebus or ikan bakar, to name just a few. Gula means sugar and gula-gula are sweets and so we’ve reached desserts… As there is no inflection (that we know of), we felt encouraged to build simple sentences during our lazy time at the seaside, commenting on the reality around us (in this case mostly kambing makan ikan aka “goat eats fish”). On the other hand, Indonesian cuisine abounds in innumerable rice dishes with additions on the side (nasi this, nasi that). Most of them, despite our (not so) earnest efforts, we were not able to tell apart.

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nasi…campur?

Obviously, taste is an individual thing, so this is our subjective take on the best and worst Indonesian dishes. We encourage you to go and check by yourself. Let’s start with complaints so we can finish in ecstasy!

THE BAD

BUTTERED AND FRIED EVERYTHING PLUS FRIED CHICKEN

It seems there is no such food item in Indonesia that seems inappropriate to be breaded in batter and deep fried. Eggs, meats, offal, bananas, cassava, tofu… everything tastes almost the same and is usually made in advance. Coated stuff soaked in oil served at room temperature? No, thank you. As far as chicken is concerned, it is the least favorite kind of meat for both of us, so we won’t tell you much about ayam goreng – maybe the most popular dish of all.

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This nice lady finds her fried snacks delicious

PADANG CUISINE

The famous cuisine from West Sumatra, which became popular around the entire country and beyond. Behind the restaurants’ front windows you can see pyramids of plates presenting available dishes. I will forever remember the picture of empty, dark streets illuminated by the windows full of piled up pottery, I’ve seen when were riding through Padang at night. When you sit down, lots of small plates with several dishes arrive on the table. You only pay for what you’ve touched. The dishes are prepared in the morning, stay all day without refrigeration and are usually served without heating. Often, in this kind of restaurants, we were very disappointed – both with taste and freshness. There is one dish though – called beef rendang – that saved the honor of Padang cuisine for us (more on this later).

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Padang restaurant (source: Wikipedia: http://commons.wikimedia.org//wiki/File:Hidangan_restoran_Padang_di_Sukabumi.JPG#mediaviewer//File:Hidangan_restoran_Padang_di_Sukabumi.JPG)

GADO-GADO (THE UGLY)

Learning about the ingredients of this salad I was sure I’m gonna love it. Sauce made of peanuts which I adore. Cooked vegetables that I love. Hard-boiled eggs I won’t say no to. Add some sprouts, raw veggies, and krupuk crisps (resembling shrimp crisps) and voila! The whole is one of the least attractive-looking dishes in the world, though for us it was not really the main complaint. What’s worse, it’s that the taste is also one big con-fusion. I apologize to Indonesians, but this national pride is hard for me to swallow. We didn’t try many gado-gados, so I decided to recreate the recipe at home, thinking I will find a way for this combination of ingredients to finally click together. It didn’t.

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Usually it looks worse

ABC – CRUSHED ICE IS WHAT’S FOR DESSERT

Ais kacang is usually called ABC (an abbreviation of Air Batu Campur, meaning “mixed ice”). Heaps of crushed ice drenched in technicolor syrups with some fresh or preserved fruit. End of story. Long time ago, it was only ice with red beans which evolved over time into more varied forms.

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An elegant version of ABC in an elegant restaurant in Semarang

THE GOOD

FRIED RICE aka NASI GORENG

The simplest comfort food. Driven by the vegetable oil phobia, I was steering clear of this dish for some time. Finally I gave in, because, damn, it’s just that good! Heap of rice fried with eggs, finely chopped vegetables, possibly some meat, sweet soy sauce called kecap manis. Trivial, greasy and yummy. The greasiness is balanced by the addition of some fresh greens. On the top of that some of that delicious fried shallots sprinkle…

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Hot hot heat in the kitchen

NASI LEMAK, NASI UDUK

We’ve been writing about nasi lemak while in Malaysia. Simple pleasures. Rice cooked in coconut milk with spices, some fried anchovies called ikan bilis, peanuts, sambal. In a loaded version you can also get hard-boiled eggs, cucumber slices and meat. Often wrapped up in banana leaf. A must!

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Evening anchovies catch

GRILLED FISH, SAMBAL AND RICE

Ikan bakar! At the seaside, freshly caught, covered in sweet and spicy marinade and put on a barbecue. Served with spicy sambal. Any sambal, for that matter, is great in Indonesia!

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FISH IN BANANA LEAVES

Fish, herbs and spices. Wrapped up and steamed. Wonderful. We’ve also tried a similar dish with small poultry (a pigeon???) served the same way and it was also delicious. A must!

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BEEF RENDANG

The most famous representative of the un-favorite Padang cuisine. Popular also in Malaysia and Singapore, it originated from Western Sumatra and the Mingkabau ethnic group (which we’ve mentioned before). Beef cooked for hours on end in coconut milk and spices. Dry but delicious. I have to finally cook my own.

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Beef rendang – third from the left,  first row

TEMPEH

We like fermented soy. Slices of fried tempeh appeared in almost any rice-and-toppings dish on Java. At home I soak them in soy sauce with powdered ginger and fry. So good!

LIQUID FRUIT AKA SHAKE

Nowhere in Southeast Asia was the choice of fruit shakes as wide as in Indonesia. I loved the sweet and sour pineapple shakes the most, they are especially tasty, juicy and ripe here… Marcin, on the other hand, was a devoted fan of mango. Perfect!

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Melon and orange

Cooking in the summer heat – Laotian cucumber salad

The record-breaking heat of the last weeks left us with no desire to cook while our thoughts turned in the direction of sun-baked Laos. Laotians, like other nations we visited during our Asian trip, seemed to be unfazed by the temperatures, even standing by the barbecue in 35 degrees Celsius. Luckily, there are also many local dishes that demand minimal or no time spent over fire. Various salads, for example.

Laos barbecue stall-1832 Laos noodle salad-1813

Laotian dishes can be a great solution for hot days in any climate. We decided to go for the delicious, classic cucumber salad (tam mak taeng). It is the twin sister of a more popular papaya salad (tam mak hoong). All other ingredients are the same, so the taste of both salads is very similar. Instead of imported papaya, I went for the Polish cucumbers in season.

Cucumber salad may sound innocent and bland but the Laotian edition is anything but that. The explosive aromas of fish sauce, lime juice and hellishly hot chilies burst through the apathy and sun-faded colors, twisting the nostrils, bringing out drops of sweat onto face and successfully cooling the body.

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In Laos, tam mak hoong or tam mak taeng don’t exist without the addition of unfiltered and unpasteurized, extremely aromatic or even fetid, fish sauce called padaek. This product probably never crosses any borders, so we will recreate the taste using standard fish sauce and shrimp paste. A little nasty in flavor, yet very exciting, these seafood preserves give the dishes amazing depth. Slightly more delicate than padaek, the aroma can still be a challenge for uninitiated.

Shrimp paste is ubiquitous in the cuisines of all Southeast Asian countries and like fish sauce and tiny chilies you can find it in the Asian stores in your country. I have brought mine from Malaysia (where it is called belacan) in a dry and flattened form. In the Asian stores, as well as in Laos, you can usually get it in the form of an actual paste in a glass or plastic jar.

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The name of the salad is simply “pounded papaya/cucumber” and to prepare it you need a large mortar, like the one they use in Laos. If you don’t have it, try to pound the smaller ingredients in your mortar and then move them to a larger bowl. I managed by using an old stoneware container that fitted all of the ingredients.

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Spicy Laotian cucumber salad – Tam Mak Taeng

Ingredients:

  • 4 cucumbers
  • 3 good quality ripe tomatoes
  • 1 lemon or lime
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1-3 small Asian chili peppers
  • one teaspoon of shrimp paste
  • fish sauce
  • 2-3 tablespoons of white or brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of salt

tam mak taeng lao salad ingredients

Preparation:

1. Peel the cucumbers and cut them into slim ribbons. Start with a few shallow cuts lengthwise and then change the angle and slice off fine slivers with a knife. When the scoring is no longer visible repeat the process. Move around the cucumber this way until it starts to fall apart. The soft flesh can be used for other purposes or you can cut it thinly and add to the salad. Laotians don’t really bother with perfect stripes and the salad contains ribbons of different lengths and thickness.

2. Put salt, sugar, garlic (you can use the press first), chili and shrimp paste and pound them for about 2 minutes.

3. Add tomatoes cut into big chunks without the excess juice and pound for a while. If the tomatoes have thick skin, you can first put them in boiling water for a minute and peel it.

tam mak taeng hoong salad preparation

4. Add a few splashes of fish sauce, 4 tablespoons of lime juice and the cucumbers. Mix all the ingredients lightly pounding them so that the flavors release.

5. Try and season to taste. Eat using chopsticks.

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In Laos, you can taste the salad straight out of the mortar, before it is put on a plate. The four flavors: sweet, sour, salty and spicy should be perfectly balanced and you can adjust the condiments to achieve your personal equilibrium. I like it sour, so I add a little bit less sugar and more lime juice. Laotian dishes are very spicy – for beginners I recommend using only one chili pepper. I use two and see the sweat on everybody’s foreheads (don’t worry, Laotians react likewise!). Three and more peppers are recommended only for the maniacs. Usually you get some raw veggies with the salad, like a piece of cabbage. Crunching them in between bites helps to deal with the spiciness. The perfect addition to the salad is Beerlao (a girl can dream…) or if not available, any other light lager. Yum, the real taste of Laos!

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On cherries and happiness

This is a story about fruit and about the countryside and happiness. The weekends and holidays I’ve spent outside the city are some of my best childhood memories. Wandering around, tasting every wild plant, running barefoot, rolling around in the puddles and then on sand (so-called crumbling!), lying flat on the meadow, gathering wild mushrooms, climbing trees, steering clear of the serious looking cows, drinking deliciously cold water from the well and last, but definitely not least, picking fruit. Red gooseberries, plums, first sweet-sour “close” apples from my grandparents’  apple tree, wild blackberries. There also were our own black currants, apples and my favorite, sour cherry orchard. As weird as it may sound, fruit are a part of my identity and I can’t imagine my life without them. Surprisingly, when searching through the family photo archives that are full of pictures from holiday trips, I couldn’t find even one from the childhood times in the orchards. All I have is a portrait with an apple tree from my later, teen years.

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Marcin did not spend as much time in the countryside as I did, yet he also is a fruit lover. After all, he is a grandson of a passionate professor that specialized in apple cultivation and a master of preparing fruit vodkas. Even better, bearing the name Sadowski, which comes from the Polish word “sad” (nothing sorry about it) that, in fact, translates as “an orchard”, I guess he had no other choice…

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I like to pick all fruit but my fondest memories are those of sour cherry harvest. With strawberries, it was always being bent, with apples moving around and carrying heavy buckets and crates, while the black currants were full of ugly worms. The cherries though are pure bliss. When my mind is trying to escape far away as usual, the grass tickles my feet, the smell of leaves and the juice that flows down my sleeve remind me of the here and the now. It all happens so very gently, and there is still space to fantasize between the conversations and singing. I love sour cherries and other sour fruit: it’s an explosion of taste, completely different from the tropical super sweetness which can make me nauseous sometimes.

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For many years now, we’ve traveled together for the summer holidays, missing out on at least a part of summer crops. We also were fascinated by foreign tastes, sometimes forgetting about the local fruit. I always thought of sour cherries as a Polish fruit. It turns out I was quite right. Wikipedia told me that even though we are the fourth in the world considering the acreage of the cultivation, in the sheer number of collected tons of cherries, we are number one. Our stay in Southeast Asia unleashed in me a great yearning for Polish sour fruit. Upon our return in the spring, I already impatiently awaited the summer. And now the cherries came to me, in the form of a facebook event of sour cherry picking. Then it was my move and I went outside of Warsaw to meet them. The hosts were lovely, the area beautiful and most importantly, the orchard was like a balm to my soul.

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I pit the cherries and cook them very slowly, making breaks until the preserves are naturally thick. I add sugar to taste, only at the end. I did the same with strawberries and black currants (marvelous!), and I will do so with plums, apples and pears as well. My mother is canning like crazy and I am following in her footsteps. One jar of such preserves fits almost 1,5 kilograms of cherries! And with them, I can my childhood memories, the story of the beautiful cherry-picking day, of searching through bowls full of fruit for the remaining pits (be careful while eating!), of the exhausting summer heat and the steaming pans. Some people just eat and enjoy, and I am jealous of their experience, not burdened by any inner dialogue. I sincerely am!!! Probably it was meant to be this way. But I am unable to do that, and accept the accusation of making things more complicated. But let me be myself. I am not afraid of any food but I don’t buy supermarket jams, nor many other products. I simply can’t put the symbol of equality between two jars so different. And I can only offer something good to others. So, to be satisfied with food, I have to dig deeper sometimes and, to tell the truth, my taste buds quickly adapted to goodness.

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Apart from the cherry preserves, there has to be a cherry tart. Occasionally, I am interested in sumptuousness but as far as summer and cherries are concerned, the case is clear: simplicity rules. Make shortbread, bake it for a while, put some cherries on top, quite a lot, actually. Sweeten with whatever you find appropriate. Bake once more. Consume at the meadow.

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Next time we’ll try to make fruit vodkas, based on instructions left by Grandpa. For now, we’ve run out of cherries. Constantly pursuing happiness and dreaming of grander plans for a bright future I was again hit in the head by a glass jar. Happiness is somewhere along that road, in an orchard, in the kitchen, on a picnic. Yo!

27 weeks, 192 days, 4608 hours aka the finale of our Asian trip

Contrary to the colorful promo brochures full of permanent smiles, Thailand gave us a rather brutal welcome when we arrived for the first time. We came into the rainy deep south from Malaysia, soaked, and chilled to the bone by the bus fans. Grim and frigid faces awaited us in the wet Hat Yai. No one wanted to help us at the bus terminal and the tuk-tuk driver was determined to rip us off. Waitresses in the gloomy hotel laid asleep over magazines, not willing to move their asses to our table. My question on where to find fruit stalls was just too difficult for the receptionist to answer. The seller of outrageously expensive sticky rice with mango threw the money in my direction when I gave up on the transaction. And so on… We were able to shed those bad impressions somewhere along the way, but despite many good experiences, there still were no sparks between us and Thailand.

This time we enter the country in the far north, charged with Laotian ease, satiated with beautiful landscapes, cheerful and satisfied. After one and a half month in Laos, we feel like savages stepping into civilization. We are shocked by the billboards, Tesco, 7eleven and ATMs on every corner. We overnight in a cute guesthouse with friendly owners. Marcin jokingly yells to me from the bathroom: “Ania, there is hot water here coming straight out of the wall!” A random driver picks us up from the road into the back of his truck and drives us to the bus stop. We try new snacks and giggle with the market sellers. Twice, we are halted on the street and asked where we are heading and if we need any help. The tuk-tuk drivers are nice and fair. And so on… Oh, how nice the Thai are!

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Chiang Kong, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai – our flight back home is already booked so we speed through the north to Bangkok in a week. We don’t have time to go a little further from the civilization and we realize the cities are not really inspiring. Despite the nice people we’ve met, we still have a problem with Thailand. Our discouragement influences how we see the country. We were spoiled by so many beautiful places during the trip that we lost our interest in digging deeper in search of Thai gems. What we see at a first glimpse is a touristic product, full of characterless bars and restaurants. Numerous travel agencies offer a mix of experiences put into a form of a ready-made product. Long-neck women, Akha women, elephants, cooking classes, visa run, tickets, temples. Choose, pay, cross off your list.

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Once again are we confronted with the fact that what we see and what happens to us is strongly dependent on our way of looking at the world. All we have at our disposal is perception. It’s each one of us who decides what to focus our attention on, and this way we draw certain people and events into our life. If you think that people are stupid, these will be the ones you meet the most on your way. If you think the world is a dangerous place, most of what will reach your ears will be stories of crimes and accidents. If you are afraid to fulfill your dreams, you will mostly see people who tried and failed. And so on.

The cuisine of the north is spicy and heavy – thick noodle soup with cubes of coagulated pork blood, fermented pork sausage, salad with boiled pork. Overdosed on new tastes, exhausted by immense heat, we are not eager to try any more new dishes. We eat less and sometimes go for Vietnamese. I dream about Polish bread, butter, cheese and pickles, about our lovely sweet and sour fruit. Tropical aromas available everyday ceased to amaze us. This is a sign we are saturated with experiences and it’s time for us to go home.

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Over the last six months we have seen too many temples, eaten more than we could stomach, overcame language and cultural barriers every day, walked hundreds of kilometers, driven thousands. It’s hard to describe how wonderful our trip was and we are proud of ourselves for undertaking it. For giving ourselves so much time together and the space to ask questions on who we are and what we want, for seeing the reality from so many different perspectives. We are sad to end it but at the same time happy to begin something new.

During our second visit to Bangkok we meet the amazing woman again. There is time for watching movies together, laziness, meals and balcony conversations.

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Spending time with Ania draws my thoughts away from the irrevocable: we’re going back. It’s time to return to our harbor, let the senses and the body rest, replenish the reserves, repair what was broken, try out what we’ve learned. Over the last half year we were excited, tired, discouraged, happy, enthusiastic, euphoric, peaceful, balanced. In the past, we considered moving out of Poland or becoming full time travelers. During this trip, there were periods when we felt we had enough but these were followed by times of awe and happiness from simply being on the move. Today we see very clearly that as travelers at heart we will always go but always come back as well. After 192 days on the road, we are flying back HOME.

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To be continued.

Good bye Laos

Farewells are not our forte. Before we realize, it’s time to leave and all the plans to “just” try this one more dish / stock up on local coconut oil / take a walk to the other side of that pretty hill etc… quickly dissolve and the only thing that remains of the wonderful place are memories. I mean, how to say goodbye if you don’t know when you’re going to see each other again or if at all? Jumping from one spot to another doesn’t allow us to develop attachment but the longer we stay in one place the harder it gets to pack that backpack and hit the road once again without a tear rolling down the cheek.

We had a hard time saying goodbye to a few places in Laos and an estimated three-week stay became a month and then one and a half. We would love to stay here longer but now we have to make a run to the border. Our already extended visa is expiring again. We spend the last two days in the country traveling on local buses through the windy mountain roads between Phongsali and Thailand. On our way, we pass through another very interesting and wild part of Laos. I know I want to return here one day and see more of it. I feel it’s a farewell but I don’t have the time to stop, taste, see.

During these two days we mostly watch through the bus windows, experiencing what you could call Laos in a nutshell. We look at the mass slash and burn of the wild forests, captive slow lorises, women from various tribes descending from the mountains for trade, known and exotic species of animals barbecued along the roads, bamboo hut villages, soup shops, beautiful scenery and the omnipresent peace and ease. This country is a mix of the beautiful and the terrifying sometimes, and we try not to judge according to western standards but make an attempt to understand.

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We’re on a ramshackle bus loaded with sacks full of rice. Local farmers display their produce along the roads and we stop on a regular basis to shop or look at the caught rare species. Into the bus go huge watermelons, bags full of young bamboo shoots, sacks of eggplants as well as grilled birds, rodents and mammals. I am amazed  again and again by the small children sleeping quietly in their mothers laps all through the long journey. Two young women return to the bus with an animal resembling a weasel. It’s been gutted and now is stiff and looks like a an embalmed mummy. Attached to the front seat on a string, it merrily jumps on the curves and bumps as we go.

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During one of the breaks, I get up to take a look at the ethnic minorities on the makeshift market. Scrambling through the loaded bus I discover a whole “family” of dead rodents and birds placed in a neat row under one of the seats, probably a dinner catch. I finally manage to get out of the bus, where the women in traditional dress immediately notice the only tourists around and run to me to sell the handicrafts. I believe it’s another subgroup of the Akha tribe we’ve visited, differing in their clothing style and openness. While those women were hiding from our sight, the ones here tie their bracelets on my wrists and put earrings and traditional aprons into my hands without a shade of embarrassment.

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In Udomxai we have a last Lao dinner at the Souphailin restaurant. In a cute little rickety hut hidden away beneath the greenery we meet the owner who cooks, serves the guests and takes care of a child at the same time. It is the quintessence of a Lao meal in a family restaurant, where you should never come just an hour before your bus leaves. Nor an hour and half, for that matter. The cook is usually the wife herself, who prepares the dishes one after another. In the meantime she can even go to the nearby market to get some ingredients. Kids play around, taking care of their own business most of the time. While waiting for your order you can relax in a chair or on a podium full of cushions (there may be even a hammock if you’re lucky), read a book, sip your Beerlao and be happy.

In Souphailin you can try the traditional northern specialties such as dried beef with herbs or once again go for the ubiquitous laap. The young host dines with us, presenting proficient skills in using sticky rice to scoop pieces of hard-boiled egg into his mouth as well as doodling away on the blank pages of our guidebook.

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The last day is an arduous drive on another, full to the brim old bus in the direction of Chiang Kong. The time passes very slowly as we climb the hills with great difficulty and descend on minimal speed. Yet this is fortunate because literally every twenty kilometers or so we pass a huge Chinese truck broken down or overturned on a sharp mountain curve. One of these carried watermelons and the smashed fruit on the road create a bloody scenery. Late in the afternoon we reach the border and before we realize, we have left Laos behind on the other side of the Mekong. We feel hungry for more but also excited to get back home soon. Dear Laos, I miss you much already!

The Akha Way

In the mountainous, border territories of southern China, northern Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma live many ethnic minority groups. Some of them still adhere to a traditional life-style, with colorful outfits and unique customs. Many villages and regions tapped the touristic market, maintaining the traditional building styles and putting on traditional costumes for those Kodak moments. Yet, there still are places where guests are a rarity and life goes on according to its old rhythm. We found this in the slightly forgotten Phongsali province of northern Laos, inhabited by Akha tribes that came here from China. The Akha, especially the women, are quite characteristic in their dark indigo dresses and jewelry made of silver rings and coins.

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Phongsali is a bit Lao and a bit Chinese. The old town with its open-spaced shops, the restaurants and license plates on cars tell us it may be more of the latter.

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Here, we hook up with Sai, a guide, and travel on local buses, then on a boat, taking a rest at a Laoseng village and doing a few hours of trekking in the mountains. It all will lead us to an isolated Akha village where we’ll stay a night. Along the way, everything’s encompassed by smoke. In the dry season it lingers everywhere over slashed and burned fields. The horizon’s short, suffocated by the smoke. The visibility’s only one or two mountain chains. The heat’s pushing down on us but Sai’s a good guide, taking breaks when we indeed need them. We also have lunch and try frog, for the first time. It tastes like a slimy water chicken.

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These two days are an incredible experience on the border of reality, augmented by the fact that we’re accompanied by a rather introvert Sai. Maybe if we were there with other tourists, we’d experience the events differently. What we see becomes the only subject of conversation on the way back. I try to discipline myself, to put it all in a chronological order but I’m unable to. It all becomes a long and chaotic description unrelated to the impressions left in my head.

We’re trekking in silence, the smoky vistas unfolding around us. When we approach the first village we see indigo-clad ghosts. The women in traditional dresses move slowly and quietly, they have weaved baskets with firewood on their backs, a belt around the foreheads supporting the weight. Nobody runs to greet us, no one rises their voice, or laughs, or waves. We see only shy smiles. While crossing the village, the animals — pigs, dogs, chickens — harmoniously eat out of a trough.

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The chief’s hut, like other huts, has no windows. It’s dark inside and the smoke from the fireplace makes us cry. Women and men are like different species here – women are quiet, shy and imprisoned in complicated dresses, while men wear modern t-shirts, smoke and talk to each other. Even little girls wear headdresses, when they grow up these will become very elaborate. After tea we’re back on the trail, joined by a chief’s son who’s going to another village to look for a wife.

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The village where we’ll spend the night is located at the top of a mountain, some 1200 meters above sea level. We’re there at the sunset; a huge hog grazes on a slope right next to us, enjoying the last rays of sun. We get to the highest vantage point and out come curious boys and instantly surround us. The previous guests were here three months ago, so the kids are very interested in us and keen to get candy from Sai, too. The women cast shy glances from their huts or while returning from firewood gathering or with water in huge bamboo tubes they hold on their backs. The ones with babies have bare breasts as they believe it will protect the health of their children. Many believe that cameras can steal souls, so they turn their heads and only one agrees to a photo.

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There’s no electricity or running water in the village, so our evening ablutions come down to washing our hands and faces in the water brought from a stream down the mountain. There are no toilets, and because we’re the biggest curiosity here, we have to wait until dark to go and do our business. We spend the evening in the chief’s hut, waiting while the women, with flashlights on their foreheads, prepare food. In a dark corner a stream of light illuminates a baby being fed on the knees of a mother. Dogs are circulating around a low table, waiting for scraps that might fall to the ground. The table goes back and forth between the eating area and cooking area, the women put food on it and wait until men finish eating and only then eat themselves. We have the supper and drink greenish moonshine that’s been filtered through leaves. After the 100% non-vegetarian lunch that Sai’s offered us, we’re surprised to find only plants on our plates. Steamed leaves, cooked bamboo shoots and wild mushroom’s in soup, all foraged in the surrounding area. There’s also rice, salt and dried chillies and thin, watery sauce for dipping. The host uses his flashlight to show us what we’re eating. It’s very simple, a bit bitter but also surprisingly tasty.

After the meal, it’s time to socialize and smoke tobacco from the bong. The subdued atmosphere of the huts instantly livens up. When we begin to pull out gifts we’ve brought, all the flashlights focus their beams on us. We had doubts if we should bring anything to people whose existence depends on self-sufficiency, but the looks we get clearly tell us that any gifts will be very appreciated. The happiness is obvious and satisfying when we hand out seeds and bars of soap. It’s an intense situation and we give out many things we have with us — our everyday items. Later, a neighbor comes with a little boy in her arms. He was bitten by a bug and a part of the sting stayed in the wound. Now it is covered with puss and sores. There are no medicines here but luckily I brought some iodine so the least we can do is to disinfect the skin. The boy patiently lets me help him and does not complain at all.

The Akha have male and female sleeping areas, separated from the living quarters by curtains. We’ll sleep on the men’s side, where the elders would sleep. While we’re laying side by side with Sai and the chief’s son I wander if I’ll be able to sleep at all with the outside sounds penetrating the thin walls. It all seems to be right next to me. I’m afraid of bugs, insects or other creatures but the exhaustion takes over and I instantly sail off into the darkness.

In the morning we see a woman who in a fit of madness is throwing stones and chasing her fleeing daughter. Sai explains. The animistic beliefs and ancestor and earth worship are a source of many superstitions. The birth of twins is considered very bad luck and the twins are given liquor and poisoned. Such an event brings bad luck to the whole village. The afflicted family has to leave and follow the shamans instructions on how to appease the spirits. Only after time and offerings, the family may come back and rebuild their house. If they are poor, they may be unable to sacrifice enough animals and fulfill the shaman’s instructions. According to Sai, the woman lost her babies. The event that brought bad luck to the village, the exclusions and condemnation and her incredible sacrifice drove her mad. It was too much to bear.

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The women go out to do work in the fields or to gather plants and firewood. Boys go to school while men linger about. Usually, it’s boys who have a shot at education because girls help mothers with work. Most women in the area can speak only a dialect, not Lao. We’re going back. In another village we finally see men at work. They’re building houses. Some villagers moved from higher up because water was scarce. At a hut there’s the customary tea from a thermos flask. Most of the family’s at work, only the grandpa is smoking opium in his den while the grandma takes care of the little one and from time to time stirs indigo stored in huge barrels.

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The mountain sides are scorched for growing opium. It’s illegal, but for some Akha may be the only source of cash that can be exchanged for items otherwise unavailable. The way to the river is long. Along it we see a family going uphill; Sai says it takes days to go to city and back. First to the river, than boats and buses, a place to sleep and the same in reverse order. They’re carrying everything from corrugated roofing sheets to mattresses. At least men are participating, though the load is equally distributed. The kids are walking upfront, than loaded horses, a group of women with stuff bound on straps to their foreheads and finally men. They will leave their cargo in a village along the way and make return trips to carry it all up. It’s not easy to be Akha.

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What to eat in Laos?

The fear of food poisoning causes many people to deny themselves the exploration of Laotian food. It’s a pity, because this wonderful country offers an interesting and flavorful cuisine, one quietly hiding between two internationally famous neighbors — the Thai and Vietnamese. Perhaps the landlocked location of Laos made spreading its culture more difficult than for its western and eastern neighbors. The opinion that Lao cuisine is similar to Thai is apparently erroneous, or rather reversed, as the northeast region of Thailand – Isan – was once a Lao territory. Therefore, it’s the food of northern Thailand that retained Laotian characteristics. One way or another, influences in the whole region of Southeast Asia interpenetrate and you can find a common denominator between cuisines of any pair of countries.

In opposition to their aforementioned neighbors, the Laotians eat using bare hands. Chopsticks are only used with noodle dishes. Because of the lack of cutlery, the dishes are either dry or dense to facilitate eating, while the sticky rice, as opposed to the ordinary rice, makes for a great “scooper-upper”. Food served in restaurants strongly differs from what people eat at homes. The tourists always get a spoon and a fork but if you watch or eat with the locals, you will see that sometimes they’ll eat even a spicy noodle salad using their hands. A local version of curry (Keng Pet or Gaeng Pet) is actually a soup. It can be eaten by soaking sticky rice balls in the liquid. The meals are usually eaten on the floor, on a special bamboo mat, or by a low table.

You will have a hard time finding an oven in Laos. Most dishes are prepared on ubiquitous grills or on a clay brazier, giving them a pleasant, smoky aroma. Apart from the Thai-imported fish sauce, the favorite, very characteristic addition to Lao dishes is padaek – a local, fermented, unfiltered “mud” made of freshwater fish, much more pungent and smelly than the Thai or Vietnamese amber liquid. Monosodium glutamate, a Chinese influence, is amazingly popular and faved by Laotians, and as our cooking instructor told us, if the locals encountered a sign on the restaurant door stating “We don’t use MSG” they would just turn around and go to another place.

Laotians love eating meat. All animals (rodents, birds, frogs, insects) are a good source of edible protein. Nothing gets wasted and if a buffalo is killed, all parts of the animal are sold and eaten, such as the offal, skin, bile, blood… Laotian cuisine is also full of fresh vegetables and herbs and the cooking often starts with pounding the shallots, garlic, lemongrass, chilli and numerous aromatic leaves in a mortar. Desserts rarely appear after the meal but are eaten as snacks between the meals, usually in the form of fresh fruit.

Below you can find a list of six basic and very characteristic dishes which we recommend to try in Laos, regardless of the region.

Sticky rice aka khao niaow!

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The most distinctive element of the Laotian cuisine. This special glutinous rice variety is first soaked in water for at least four hours and then steamed in a special cone-shaped bamboo basket. Cooked rice is stored in another, cylinder-shaped basket. A Laotian family consumes a large basket of rice every day, using it as a base of almost any meal. In the local transport we often noticed packed lunch in the form of a dry piece of grilled meat and a clod of sticky rice. Apart from the white variety, we have also encountered its beautiful purple sibling.

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Jeow
The simplest Lao meal is sticky rice with a taste-carrying dip called jeow.

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There are plenty kinds of these sauces: made of tomatoes, eggplant, peanuts. The famous, jeow bong, is made of buffalo skin and chillies. In general, the veggies are first put in a hot brazier to blacken, then they’re peeled. That’s how the dip becomes distinctively smoky in taste. To eat, tear a piece of sticky rice, shape it into a ball and shovel a little bit of jeow into your mouth. No second dippings with the half eaten ball!

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Foe
Lao version of the Vietnamese pho. I’ve written about it more than once because I feel it’s a must-try. The single most popular breakfast choice which you can get in any of the eateries in the morning and often during the day. We ate it numerous times and although the quality varies greatly, some of these bowls I will keep in my memory for ever. My favorite version contains tomatoes and thin and hard rice noodles. The contents of the bowl are just a base to be enriched (“making it more perfect”) using a personal choice of additions placed on the table, including extremely spicy peppers, chilli pastes in oil, fish sauce and shrimp paste, herbs and other greens, limes, sugar and MSG crystals… We encourage you to do what the Asians do and start your day with a bowl of hot soup. It is hard to change habits from the home country but in fact it turns out much better both when it comes to taste and money in comparison to the local knock-offs of the western dishes such as instant pancakes or English breakfast with imported meat, quite expensive here and both of very low quality.

Tam Mak Hoong (papaya salad)
An absolute classic which you can get everywhere, obligatorily reeking of padaek fish sauce (the more south you go the more they add) and full of chillies that will make you cry. Because of this, it may not be the perfect meal but rater an aromatic addition to your lunch. It’s worth trying at least once. There is a similar cucumber version, also cut in thin ribbons. Variations of papaya salad are found throughout the region but apparently it was invented in Laos.

Mok pa

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Similar to the Khmer amok, mok pa is fish steamed in banana leaves. The Lao version doesn’t contain coconut milk. An aromatic paste is created in a mortar using a few kinds of herbs (dill being the leading ingredient), which is then mixed with pieces of fish and wrapped in banana leaves creating a simple, delicate and really tasty dish.

Laap / koy

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The famous salad made of minced meat and chopped greens is served for special occasions. Chicken, duck, fish, buffalo or other meats can be used. Cows are quite rare in Laos and what appears as “beef” on the menus is usually buffalo meat, which contains less fat and is therefore often described as of lower quality. In the restaurants, the meat for laap is fried first, but Lao people prefer a raw version accompanied by lao-lao (the local whiskey / moonshine). The salad appears to be mostly meat but preparing it we were surprised how much greens can be mixed in, such as spring onion, cilantro, lemongrass, mint, banana flower, long beans, sprouts…

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In the buffalo version of the salad, buffalo bile is often added to tenderize the meat and add some well-loved bitterness. Offal is also a popular addition, often in the form of finely chopped intestines. In restaurants, you can find vegetarian versions of laap, for example with tofu or mushrooms. It’s delicious, too!

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Disappearing world

Not so long ago, riverways were the main routes for transportation in mountainous Laos. There still are villages that can only use boats to connect with the rest of the world. River travel, especially on the legendary Mekong, appears to be a mandatory item on the to-do list of travelers who want to experience “real life” of Laos. The Mekong was present in our journey already in Cambodia and Vietnam, but now we’ve found ourselves on the banks of the Nam Ou river.

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Nam Ou begins its course near the Chinese border and joins the Mekong near Luang Prabang. We began our river adventure at Nong Khiaw, some 150 km from LPB. The first acquaintance with the river was made from the bridge that joins villages located on opposite banks. The next day, after an arduous hike to a view-point, we enjoyed panoramic views of the area and wondered what adventures await us upriver.

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We traveled on the river four times over the span of five days, slowly making our way north. Our destination was the area north of Phongsali, the base for trekking to remote villages of the Akha tribe. At first, we began in a large group that dwindled with each day and each jetty. At the same time our excitement kept on rising. During the final leg that brought us to the starting point of a trek, there were only the two of us and a guide.

We love traveling on trains and yachting on lakes. To these favorites we must add slow boating on rivers. The narrow longboat with its tiny benches is not exactly comfortable but no luxury can substitute freedom. In air conditioned buses or on planes I suffocate, feeling locked like in a cage. I long for the feel of real air, can’t find a comfortable position, my body is unable to fit the solid form of the seat. On the boat though, I feel happy with the wind in my hair, my hand gliding over the surface of water and my eyes can focus on the surroundings without anything between me and the nature. Tired bodies of fellow passengers can comfortably roll up at the back of the boat or make make-shift lairs among backpacks and parcels. We could read, smoke, play dice, eat, listen to music or just do nothing – depending on the moment.

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The landscape here probably hasn’t changed for years. We passed by pristine forests and bamboo-hut villages, the noise of our engine heralding out arrival to bathing villagers. Such moments unavoidably make me think of the times of colonizers. We are on the boat, they on the banks. When taking a break at a village landing, we watch the kids and they, in turn, unashamedly watch us. We slowly come closer, the weight of their serious, inquiring stares palpable, but the atmosphere is easily diffused with frolics, sand drawings and smiles. They give us edible flowers and pose for photos. At the end, everybody’s waving as we cruise away. Sometimes we would witness the great social event that is evening ablutions – washing and cleaning, careful soaping and rinsing, jumps into water, conversations, practical jokes, horse-play.

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The time we’ve spent on the river is unforgettable, maybe the best we had on our trip. It’s hard to believe that this world will soon disapear. The process of cutting up the river with dams has already begun and the number of dams is bound to grow in the coming years. They are put up to produce electricity, raising the waters levels and displacing whole villages. The river transportation will be much more difficult, so roads between village will have to be built. We watched two of the gigantic dams that were already up, forcing us to get off the boat and take a bus and connect with another jetty. The scale of the construction is incredible and the damage to the environment shocking. Supposedly, in a few years, a super-fast railway will connect China and the Lao capital, Vientiane, cutting trough the northern wilderness. It’s hard to imagine all the changes that will take place here, in an area that until now was almost forgotten. It is said that progress cannot be stopped, so we’re glad that we could see this world before it’s gone.

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Naked Lunch

Markets are some of our favorite places. We visit them in every country. It’s all same same, but a bit different, too. In Indonesia and Cambodia they stank to high heavens, Vietnam offered the most greens anywhere. In Laos the smells are O.K. but the number of flies in the meat section is staggering. A plastic bag on a stick is the common means of shooing them away. We also found blocks of coagulated blood and greenish buffalo bile in clear plastic bags. There was an eye as well, looking at us from a pile of meaty bits and pieces.

What we looked at though, were heaps of peppers and tomatoes ranging in color from yellow to dark red, the most beautiful mini-eggplant balls, lemongrass, banana flowers and an incredible variety of herbs and other seasonal plants — it was bamboo season and the young, conical shoots were ubiquitous.

Is there more to markets than food? Sure! Conversations, smiles and interesting characters. The earlier you get there and further it is from tourists, the better. If you’d like to see a more intimate side of a country — begin with the bazaar.

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A touristic experience

Luang Prabang is the westerner’s fantasy of a perfect city. Peaceful, atmospheric, green, clean and abounding in restaurants, entertainment and culture. A small taste of Laos in civilized conditions. In this wild and non-commercial country, a tourist can feel good and safe among the hotels, French bakeries, English-speakers and infinite opportunities for spending money. This UNESCO historic heritage site is a sightseeing magnet because of the exotic setting with countless temples and orange-shining monks. There are museums, concerts, courses and craft galleries. This time, instead of complaining about such places being not entirely up our alley, we decided that when in Rome, do as the tourists do, and gave in to consumption.
We wandered among the temples and colonial architecture, along the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, splashing out in restaurants and cafes.

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Visited an interesting mini-museum of ethnic minorities with a gift shop where you can easily spend a few days’ budget (which we gladly did).

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We had a meal in the museum restaurant (closing soon), where we tried ethnic treats from various tribes. The idea is brilliant but the execution rather bland.

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We went on a obligatory trip out of town to see the local bears, butterflies and waterfalls. It was beautiful and crowded – the paths beaten badly.

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We took part in a cooking class. For the first time, we went to the market armed with a human guide. The school itself was set in a beautiful garden with a pond. For those who can cook it is much more fun than learning, but in the end it’s hard to call that a drawback.

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We got up at dawn to see the monks’ alms procession. In the dim morning light, in quiet, the march of barefoot monks must be a mystical experience. But not in Luang Prabang, where the retarded tourists along with photographers circled around the monks like vultures, trying to find the best shot, flashes right in the eyes or putting tablets with dangling covers in front of monks’ faces. The more ambitious decide to buy rice and take part in the ceremony. Then they have a chance to fit themselves in the photo as well. This is probably one of the worst tourist experiences we had. After regaining our conscience at this early hour and seeing the nature of the event, we wanted to curl up and die, ashamed of the Western, picture-centered culture.

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We tried some quite well-promoted specialties like the dried Mekong weed, local sausage, jeow sauce with buffalo skin and the bael fruit tea. Maybe we came too late in the evening, but the praised Cafe Toui that offers tasting platters of these treats disappointed us in both taste and freshness.

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I couldn’t help but wonder if there even are any volunteers to try these “controversial” dishes? In front of another, nice looking restaurant where a lady in a white apron was grilling fish, we overheard a conversation: – What fish is it? – It’s from the Mekong. – Eeew, I don’t want it. So, if you’re looking for some Atlantic salmon in this hard to cross, landlocked country, we can give you a piece of advice: don’t bother.